As its title would suggest, Moneyball studies the role of money in Major League Baseball in the late 20th and early 21st century. Baseball—no less than any other popular, sought-after form of entertainment—is a business, and Michael Lewis (a former Wall Street trader himself) shows how a group of savvy general managers and assistant general managers revolutionized baseball by applying business principles to it.
One of Moneyball’s most important insights into the role of money in baseball is that, in practice, Major League Baseball functions in more or less the same way as the American economy itself. A large number of franchises compete with one another to sign contracts with the most talented players, ensuring that those players will compete on their behalf for many years to come. As with the American economy, however, the competition between franchises is far from fair and equal. The largest, richest franchises, such as the New York Yankees, have a huge advantage over their poorer competitors: they can afford to buy the most sought-after athletes. If the biggest franchises always bought the best players, one would expect that, over time, the biggest franchises would continue to get bigger and better. However, as Lewis shows, big franchises don’t always make good use of their funds and their players. Sometimes, promising players turn out to be bad investments, and sometimes, players with good agents charge the largest franchises an inflated price for their services. In effect, smaller franchises are—to use the market analogy again—startups, using novel strategies, shrewd investments, and pure luck to outcompete their larger, more static rivals. As a result of the occasional incompetence of large franchises and the ingenuity of smaller franchises, such as the Oakland A’s, Major League Baseball remains exciting and entertaining for fans—the richest teams don’t always win. Nevertheless, as Moneyball makes clear, money controls Major League Baseball to a degree that even devoted fans of the sport don’t realize: franchises make draft decisions not out of loyalty, or even due to players’ talents, but based on what their budgets enable them to do. And their success depends on the value they gain from the money they spend.
Evidently, money is the means of achieving success in the world of professional baseball. But Lewis also suggests that, in slightly a different sense, money is the ultimate measure of success. The goal of a Major League franchise is not, in the end, to win the World Series, but to draw fans, sell tickets, attract popular interest, and to boost the general cash value of the franchise. It’s still important for the franchise to win games, but not simply for the intrinsic glory of winning. Indeed, during the era in which Moneyball is set (the 1980s to the early 2000s), many baseball franchises, which had previously been thought of as essentially philanthropic organizations (i.e., money-losers), refocused their strategy and became proper businesses. Understood in this way, Moneyball’s view of baseball can seem somewhat cynical: the goal of the game is not, contrary to what many fans believe, to please fans or maintain loyalty to certain players, except as means to the end of building a profitable business.
Billy and Paul remain controversial figures in the world of organized sports. While their sabermetric management style challenged the conventional wisdom that the richest teams always won, their strategies ultimately made baseball more money-centric than ever before by applying Wall Street derivative tactics to baseball. In the early 2000s, Billy’s unique insight led the Oakland A’s to a successful season, leveling the playing field for a small, underfunded team. But since the early 2000s, and the success of Moneyball itself, many different baseball teams, big and small, have begun making management decisions with the help of sabermetrics, effectively canceling out any advantage that DePodesta’s methods lent to smaller franchises. After leading the A’s to a successful season in 2002, Billy Beane was offered a chance to work for the Red Sox and become the highest-paid general manager in baseball history. To widespread surprise, he turned the Red Sox down, claiming that he’d never make a decision that was “just about the money.” Lewis doesn’t reveal Billy’s precise motives for turning down the contract, but Billy’s decision symbolizes the contradictions of sabermetrics and monetization: although the people who pioneered the use of sabermetrics seemed to be motivated by something more than just a desire for money, their decisions had the effect of clarifying and strengthening the role of money in baseball overall.
Money and Value ThemeTracker
Money and Value Quotes in Moneyball
When things did not go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it. It wasn't merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.
The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy’s senior year the only question they had about Billy was: Can I get him?
There was no avoiding just how important the 2002 amateur draft was for the future of the Oakland A’s. The Oakland A’s survived by finding cheap labor. The treatment of amateur players is the most glaring of the many violations of free market principles in Major League Baseball. A team that drafts and signs a player holds the rights to his first seven years in the minor leagues and his first six in the majors.
Since the late 1970s the A’s had been owned by Walter A. Haas, Jr., who was, by instinct, more of a philanthropist than a businessman. Haas viewed professional baseball ownership as a kind of public trust and spent money on it accordingly. In 1991, the Oakland A’s actually had the highest payroll in all of baseball. Haas was willing to lose millions to field a competitive team that would do Oakland proud, and he did. The A’s had gone to the World Series three straight seasons from 1988 to 1990.
Deferring to success became an untenable strategy in 1995.
Volcker was also the only commissioner with a financial background. To the growing annoyance of the others, he kept asking two provocative questions:
1. If poor teams were in such dire financial condition, why did rich guys keep paying higher prices to buy them?
2. If poor teams had no hope, how did the Oakland As, with the second lowest payroll in all of baseball, win so many games?
Justice walked a lot. Just a few years ago Justice's ability to wait for pitches he could drive—to not get himself out by swinging at a pitcher's pitch
–had enabled him to hit lots of home runs, too. Much of his power was now gone. His new Oakland teammates witnessed his dissipation up close. After he'd hit a long fly ball, Justice would return to the A’s dugout and say, matter of factly, "That used to be out." There was something morbid about it, like watching a death, play-by-play.
The A’s front office didn't care. They sought only to milk the last few ounces of superior on-base percentage out of David Justice before he expired.
Billy Beane wanted him to hit. Hatteberg told his agent to cut a deal with Oakland: one year with a club option for a second with a base salary of $950,000 plus a few incentive clauses. The moment he signed it, a few days after Christmas, he had a call from Billy Beane, who said how pleased he was to have him in the lineup.
And, oh yes, he'd be playing first base.
The moment he hangs up he calls Mark Shapiro, current owner of Ricardo Rincon, and tells him that he has the impression that the market for Rincon is softening. Whoever the other bidder is, he says, Shapiro ought to make sure his offer is firm.
In his youth he might have mouthed off. He would certainly have borne a grudge. But he was no longer young; the numbness had long since set in. He thought of himself the way the market thought of him, as an asset to be bought and sold. He'd long ago forgotten whatever it was he was meant to feel.
"I made one decision based on money in my life—when I signed with the Mets rather than go to Stanford—and I promised I'd never do it again." After that, Billy confined himself to the usual blather about personal reasons. None of what he said was terribly rational or "objective"—but then, neither was he. Within a week, he was back to scheming how to get the Oakland A’s back to the playoffs, and Paul DePodesta was back to being on his side.
Everybody's laughing at him again. But their laughter has a different tone. It's not the sniggering laughter of the people who made fun of his body. It's something else. He looks out into the gap in left center field. The outfielders are just standing there: they've stopped chasing the ball. The ball's gone. The triple of Jeremy Brown's imagination, in reality, is a home run.